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Mind the Gap

By Dennis Riley

Remember Lily Ledbetter?  She’s the woman who worked for years at a Mitsubishi plant as a supervisor only to find out when one of her male counterparts retired that she had been being paid much less than those male counterparts ever since she got the job.  She sued and the Supreme Court surprised nearly everybody when it ruled that Ms. Ledbetter had missed the 180 day deadline for filing such suits.  You see, the Court majority had discovered, after 40 some years, that the deadline meant 180 days after the discrimination began rather than 180 days after the individual who had been discriminated against discovered it.  A law restoring the original interpretation of the 180 day deadline – not surprisingly called the Lily Ledbetter Act – was passed in January 2009 and became the first statute signed by the newly inaugurated Barack Obama.

The issue of pay discrepancies between men and women doing the same jobs has gotten some considerable play these past few weeks as President Obama issued an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to end policies that punish employees for revealing how much they are paid and Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a bill introduced by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D., MD) which would have required all employers to follow that same rule – and a little bit more.  The data on male/female pay discrepancies are clear enough.  Right after I came to UWSP all those years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report informing us that women made 59 cents for every dollar made by men.  Green buttons reading 59 cents were seen all over campus.  Today’s buttons, if they exist, would read 77 cents.  The question isn’t whether pay differences exist.  The question is why, and, maybe more to the point, what should we do about it?

The President and the Senate Democrats want to take the small, but still significant step, of making it easier for women to find out if they are being discriminated against every time they get a paycheck and easier for the rest of us to know which employers seem to be perpetuating these gender based pay differentials.  The economic imperative seems compelling.  In two of every three American families, a woman is either the primary breadwinner or a joint breadwinner.  Those families are being cheated.  Beyond that, women make up an increasing percentage of new college graduates, graduates with substantial loans to pay off and saddled with a lower wage because they are women.  Finally, pay discrimination is the gift that keeps on giving.  A pension, if you are lucky enough to have one, is based on lifetime earnings as are social security payments.  Women, as we all know, have a longer average life expectancy, giving them, of course, a longer time to feel the impact of having been paid less than the man working in the next cubicle.  To a great many of us, it sounds pretty much like a matter of simple fairness.

But, obviously, not to all of us.  The argument is frequently made that these pay discrepancies reflect not discrimination but the effect of women’s occupational and personal choices combined with the wise and wonderful workings of the labor market.

One line of that argument proceeds as follows.  Women gravitate toward jobs that pay less, driving up the supply of workers available to do those jobs and thus driving down the wages.  But that begs the question of why women gravitate toward certain jobs – a history of stereotypes and past discrimination come to mind – and, in any case, seems a whole lot less convincing when you learn that a Bloomberg News analysis of Census data reveals that median earnings for women were less than those for men in 264 of 265 occupational categories used by the Census bureau.  You can add to that the fact that of 2012 college graduates, women made 82 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Many of the people who make the occupational choice argument also tell us that women take time out of workforce to bear children, to care for those children when they are sick, and even to care for parents – theirs and their husband’s – as they face the daunting task of growing old.  That just has to hit them in the pocketbook.  It does hit them, but does it have to?  Think for just a moment about what they are “taking a break” for.  Do we really want to say that bearing children, caring for them when they are ill, and driving Grandpa to the clinic are things one should be penalized for?  Speaking for grandpas all over the country, give them – and therefore us – a break.

Now, it seems, I have seen one more argument for refusing to try to close this gender based wage gap.  To do so would result in fewer women finding suitable husbands.  Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum, and one of the lead organizers of the successful movement to prevent the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment all those years ago, has waded into the wage gap argument by telling us that “While women prefer to HAVE a higher-earning partner, men generally prefer to BE the higher earning partner in a relationship.”  Consequently, “… simple arithmetic suggests that half of women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate.”  Her policy prescription:  “The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap.”  I’m not sure I get this “simple arithmetic,” but be that as it may, I think I do get the moral calculus and it leads me to the opposite conclusion.  Close the pay gap and let men and women – or men and men or women and women – sort out marriage in a land of equal pay.  I think we (they) can handle it.

Enough out of me.

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